October 12, 2019

Ecumenical Dialogue: Where Do We Go From Here?

Last November 21, 2014, the Catholic Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism called Unitatis Reintegratio (“Restoration of Unity”). The anniversary presented an opportunity to celebrate the great strides that have been accomplished in the last fifty years, but strangely here in the U.S. there was very little celebration locally or nationally.

If you have been involved in the ecumenical movement for any significant amount of time, you have probably encountered the reality that the movement is currently experiencing what some have called an “ecumenical winter.” It is true that the “Francis factor” has also positively impacted ecumenical dialogue, especially with the Greek Orthodox Church – we all marveled at the great sign of unity when Pope Francis visited Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I last November 2014 – yet although there are undoubtedly some hopeful signs of budding flowers here and there, the ecumenical movement (especially when looking at the local level) is in a state of permafrost.

In his Activity Report (November 2010–November 2012), Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), wrote, “the search for unity seems to be experiencing a certain tiredness.” He went on to state that there is a lack of consensus about the “meaning of unity and, consequently, about the aim of our ecumenical endeavors.” And this lack of consensus has produced “uncertainty about the path to be undertaken.”

Confusion about the future for ecumenical dialogue is being felt in many ecumenical circles. The fact of the matter is that on a local level aside from occasional shared prayer, work at soup kitchens, tree planting, and the like, there doesn’t seem to be much progress toward ‘full visible communion’ – the goal of ecumenical dialogue.

Bishop Farrell’s Activity Report also indicated a fading interest in achieving ecumenical unity among the recently ordained clergy: “There is a new generation, which includes even priests and bishops, that has less enthusiasm for unity.” The result of this lack of enthusiasm for unity may unfortunately be that ecumenism will be a low priority for bishops, priests, and laity into the future. The great challenges for pastors such as keeping schools open and running a parish with half of the clergy staff of course doesn’t help in making ecumenism a high priority.

Two Major Milestones of the Ecumenical Movement

The results of the last fifty years of ecumenism are undoubtedly spectacular when it comes to building unity. The bilateral and multilateral dialogues between the Catholic Church and other ecclesial communities have in many ways transcended the sad memories of former conflict and suspicion much to everyone’s joy. Ecumenical relationships have slowly moved from tolerance to friendship as well as a flood of mixed marriages.

One of the milestones and fruits of ecumenical dialogue with the ecclesial communities stemming from the Reformation of the sixteenth century has been the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the PCPCU. The Joint Declaration, which was also adopted by the World Methodist Council in 2006, quieted one of the most fiercely contested doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants – the question of sola fide; justification through faith alone. The Declaration concluded that a deeper investigation of the Lutheran and Catholic positions on justification shows their essential agreement: “The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this Declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics” (n. 40).

Another milestone occurred in 13 October 2007 with the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox dialogue in the Declaration of Ravenna. This document addressed the crucial issues of conciliarity and authority in the hope of restoring full communion between Catholic and Orthodox Christians. The document asserted that the Bishop of Rome is the Protos (first) among equals at the local (episcopal), regional (metropolitan), provincial (patriarchal), and even universal levels. It also stated that this privileged position “does not diminish the sacramentality of every bishop or the catholicity of each local Church” (n. 44).

Nonetheless, in spite of all this progress, ecumenical dialogue seems to be struggling to maintain its original energy and post-Conciliar enthusiasm for full communion. Pope Benedict XVI alluded to this in his address at the Plenary Assembly of the PCPCU on 15 November 2012: “the possibility of the reestablishment of full communion cannot be glimpsed in an immediate future.”

Ecumenical Relations with Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West

The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West is one that is marked with well-received high points but one that is also plagued by uncertainty. The churches and ecclesial communities of the West in official dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church include the Conference of Old Catholics Bishops of the Union of Utrecht, the Anglican Communion (including the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada), the World Methodist Council, Lutheran World Federation, and the World Communion of Reformed Churches, among others.

Individual dialogues within these churches have to be considered seperately, yet when one looks at the larger Anglican Communion and the Reformed churches one would be hard pressed to say that, although there has been ‘irreversible progress’, the trajectory toward full-communion doesn’t seem to be converging. If fact, it is diverging. This divergence seems mainly due to the serious separation of doctrine from the traditio ecclesiae especially with regard to the ordination of women to the priesthood and moral issues concerning human sexuality—especially in regard to same-sex unions.

“Unity in Truth” to a “Unity in Diversity”

In 1966, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, paid a historic visit to Pope Paul VI. The pope exchanged his episcopal ring from the Archdiocese of Milan with the Archbishop as a profound sign of unity. A Common Declaration was subsequently released inaugurating a “serious dialogue which, founded on the gospels and on the ancient common traditions, may lead to that unity in truth, for which Christ prayed.

The confidence depicted through these words unfortunately looks frail today in the face of the dwindling recognition of church authority and the relativizing of the moral imperatives of almost two millennia of Christianity. The lack of consensus on these issues seems to be generating even more basic questions such as – “What does it mean to be Church?” In spite of the conferences, symposiums, commissions, meetings, sessions, projects, and libraries of agreements, there is even confusion as to what it means to live a Christian life. This lack of “unity in truth” once so clear in the Common Declaration of 1966 has morphed into a celebration of “unity in diversity.”

The shift from “unity of truth” to “unity of diversity” over the last 50 years can be traced to the 1975 introduction of the ordination of women to the priesthood by some provinces of the Anglican Communion, and by other members of the communities of the West.

In his address to the bishops of the Church of England on 16 June 2006, Cardinal William Kasper, then president of the PCPCP observed that “the growing practice of the ordination of women to priesthood led to an appreciable cool-off” of ecumenical relations between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. Kasper suggested that the ordination of women to the episcopate, already practiced by three provinces within the Anglican Communion at that time would lead “not only to a short-lived cold, but to a serious and long-lasting chill.” Kasper’s position was consistent with the Magisterial teaching in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that restricted priestly ordination to men as a matter of “great importance” and one that “pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself” (n. 4).

On 20 November 2013, however, the Church of England overwhelmingly voted to endorse the ordination of women bishops ignoring Kasper’s warning that this decision would lead to a “long-lasting [ecumenical] chill.” This decision was inevitable however, given the 1975 introduction of women into the priesthood.

In 1970, the Lutheran Church in American approved the ordination of women and in 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) approved the appointment of pastors living in homosexual relationships. Both decisions have caused considerable controversy within the Lutheran communion itself and have produced unintended ruptures in unity.

The Union of Utrecht, the Anglican Communion, and the ELCA all have experienced a splintering within their churches due to women’s ordination and the liberalization of sexual norms. This division in turn has made it increasingly difficult for the Roman Catholic Church to engage in ecumenical dialogue with these churches—much less build toward full communion.

In this context of uncertainty about the meaning of Christian faith, especially with regards to Christian morals and “gospel values,” unity becomes increasingly more difficult and seemingly more remote. Consequently, one can understand why there is a lack of enthusiasm for ecumenism among a new generation of priests, bishops, and lay people. The focus of interest in this new generation seems to be shifting toward interfaith dialogue given the impasse in ecumenism and crisis in the Middle East.

State of Ecumenism with the Orthodox Churches

If we look at the dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches we see a more positive outlook—much more like a cool spring rather than a frosted winter. This can be attributed to the fact that both churches have maintained not only the same basic ecclesial structure inherited from the ancient Church but have also maintained fidelity to the ancient common traditions. This optimism was expressed by Bishop Farrell: “And so we are to hope, even if humanly speaking constantly new difficulties arise, that the day may still be not too far away when we may once again celebrate the Eucharist together.”

The main difficulty to be overcome in Roman Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is the problem of Petrine primacy versus pentarchy—literally “rule by five.” In the Orthodox view, the five ancient patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem all share a special place of honor among all the churches with Rome exercising the privilege of being first among equals; but not primacy.

There is also the significant question of “Uniatism”—the union of Eastern Rite churches with the Roman Church, individually or in groups, and therefore the existence in traditional Orthodox territories of churches that are in full communion with Rome rather than with the Orthodox hierarchy of that territory. More than just a canonical or doctrinal problem, Uniatism presents some very real practical difficulties. Nonetheless, there is a deep respect and a palpable sisterhood between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

On the local ecumenical front in the U.S., the absence of the Orthodox Churches is often sadly felt — mostly because in the U.S. there are just fewer Orthodox Christians than in the East. Perhaps more can be done in the future to facilitate this dialogue on the local level.

Looking Toward the Future

One thing is clear—there is no turning back. As Pope John Paul II stated in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, “the way of ecumenism is the way of the Church” (n. 7). Ecumenical dialogue is today central to the Roman Catholic Church’s mission and consciousness. The question remains however—how do we refocus our ecumenical endeavors in order to achieve unity?

In the case of ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox churches the meaning of unity is clear. Koinonia is based on faithfulness to the apostolic legacy of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and the sharing of the Eucharist and sacramental life. There then seems to be hope that the Orthodox-Roman Catholic “winter” may be followed by a late spring.

In the case of the Communions of the West, the meaning of unity is not so clear. What was originally the promise of an early spring has turned into an inescapable winter. In the midst of doctrinal divisions and the fragmentation within existing ecclesial communions, the path ahead is quite nebulous. It seems, however, that this difficult situation has inadvertently also opened up a new horizon.

There is now the possibility of re-grafting into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, through the vehicle of the “personal ordinariate”, as a result of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. Other ecclesial communities apart from the Anglican Communion, such as Lutherans in Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic States, have inquired about the possibility of a collective union with the Roman Catholic Church through a similar avenue. On the other hand, this re-grafting is not viewed positively by many in the ecumenical movement who consider it more of an absorption rather than ecumenical unity. The fact of the matter is that these personal ordinariates—at least if the current trends continue—are not going to be long-term solutions since the ecclesial communities making use of them are relatively few.

If there is to be a thaw in the ecumenical winter, it is clear that the Holy Spirit must blow into new areas where it has not been invited before. One must not forget the words of Pope Benedict XVI in his address to the November Plenary Assembly: “This [unity among divided Christians] is not a work that we human beings can simply achieve . . . ultimately, this unity is a gift of God, it can only come from the Father through the Son, because the Church is his Church.”

As a final reflection, perhaps one can find some hope in the meeting on 14 June 2014 between Pope Francis and Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for an indication of how to escape the winter. At that meeting, both sat and talked together for over thirty minutes in the Pope’s library. They discussed their faith and love for God and other issues affecting the world. Although conscious of the significant ecumenical challenges before them they focused on the importance of Christian witness.

For example, in regard to the debate about gay marriage, according to the Archbishop, they were “absolutely at one on the issues.” Both upheld the Christian teaching on the nature of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. They also equally condemned homophobic behavior and upheld the essential dignity of each human being as the absolute foundation of all behavior—one can’t begin to speak about what is moral or immoral without first looking at what is proper and essential to the dignity of each human being made in the image of God.

The two religious leaders also spoke about world poverty, the need for ethics in finance and business, and the scandal of human trafficking. Their conversation provides an excellent example of the types of positive work that can be done on an ecumenical level. The two ended their visit by praying together at the tombs of St. Peter and St. John Paul II.

What can we learn from this ecumenical meeting? Perhaps that the way forward has to be paved through prayer and a humble respect for the deposit of faith handed down from Christ to the Apostles. The key toward the future of ecumenism perhaps may be found in the “culture of encounter” that has become the cornerstone of Pope Francis’ papacy.

Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the Domus Sanctae Martae, in the presence of employees of the Governate of Vatican City and commented how the “culture of encounter” could be generated on a practical level:

If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

The future of ecumenism will need to be paved with this “gentle, little by little” patience, which is not easy or very glamorous compared to the more evident strides of the past. The most important piece of the equation, however, is doing what is good. Not in a generic or popular sense but rather in the sense of what is appropriate to the dignity of the human person created in the image of God—the moral good. If we do this consistently, then perhaps like St. Francis of Assisi, the namesake of Pope Francis, we can once again repair the Church that has fallen in disrepair through division and corruption. Like St. Francis, we also have to “start by doing what is necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing what is impossible.”

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Written by
Fr Avelino González

REVEREND AVELINO GONZÁLEZ is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington and pastor of St. Gabriel Church in NW, Washington, DC. He also serves as the Director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Archdiocese of Washington and is president of the Inter-Faith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. Father is a graduate of The Catholic University of America, Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College, Pontifical North American College, and the Pontifical Gregorian University. He was ordained a deacon at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in October 2005 by Bishop Donald W. Wuerl (then ordinary of the diocese of Pittsburg), and to the priesthood on May 27, 2006, by Theodore Cardinal McCarrick.

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Written by Fr Avelino González
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